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Could Icarus Fly to Tokyo?

Icarus’s story is so famous that his name is associated with “hubris”/arrogance. And believe it or not, it is connected to the Olympic Games! Here is a refresher: Icarus and his father, Daedalus, were imprisoned on an island by an evil king. Daedalus, the inventor of the Labyrinth, was known across the ancient world for his ability to design, invent, and build, so he devised a way to escape. He created two sets of wings made out of wax and feathers. Before they set off, Daedalus warned Icarus about being neither too complacent (do not fly too close to the sea, so the moisture does not soak the feathers) nor too arrogant (do not fly too close to the sun, so the sun’s rays do not melt the wax). In his excitement, Icarus ignored his father and ascended to greater and greater heights. Like his father forewarned him, the wax of his wings melted, causing him to plummet toward the sea, where he drowned.

Nowadays, people tell the story of Icarus to caution others against “flying too close to the sun”. But, in the world after COVID, maybe the lesser-known caution — avoid complacency — is the long-term battle. In the short term, the biggest threat to survival is exhilaration, which lets us make decisions too quickly and soar too high. Had Icarus not perished early on, he surely would have had to battle complacency. The long, tedious grind that comes with staving off boredom and inactivity: that is the real danger that comes with a long-term crisis. That is the real danger of the COVID Crisis.

The Never-ending Crisis

Athletes, teams, leagues, and federations around the world are trying their best to figure out how to fly safely above the virus without getting overconfident. Stakes are especially high for the Tokyo Olympics, which was already postponed from 2020 to 2021. Before 2020, the Olympics had never been delayed or cancelled during peacetime. The event has been cancelled three times; once because of WWI, and twice because of WWII. But since, then, it has been able to withstand everything from boycotts to terrorist attacks. As they say, the show must go on. But must it? Many experts believe that the Olympics cannot, or at least should not, happen unless a vaccine is in place, which we are not sure will happen by Summer 2021. No matter when it happens, the athletes are going to have to be ready. Now, we have heard the word “unprecedented” uttered more times in the last six months than we have in the rest of our lives combined, so it raises many questions: How in the world are athletes supposed to prepare themselves for repeated stops and starts? How are event organisers supposed to keep the athletes safe? How much should athletes be ready to sacrifice just to do their jobs?

To answer many of these pressing questions, we will take a look at two sporting events. In the first, Novak Djokovic plays the role of the modern-day Icarus. In the second, we look at the NBA playoffs, an event with the long-term grind against complacency in mind.

Novak Djokovic, the Icarus of 2020

Sometime early this Spring, Novak Djokovic came up with the idea to hold the Adria Tour: a series of exhibition tennis matches in Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia (Djokovic’s home country). The official ATP tennis tour had cancelled and postponed all professional events from mid-March. By May, Djokovic had enough of lockdown life, so he recruited other top players, such as Alex Zverev, Dominic Thiem, and Grigor Dimitrov (current or former Top 3 players). Even before the event started, many criticised Djokovic and co. for not taking COVID seriously enough: they did not have many standard controls in place, such as social distancing, required masks, etc. In defence of Djokovic’s hubris, these countries were the Adria tour was to take place had not been hit particularly hard by COVID; the governments even approved the Tour.

That said, the Tour was far too laissez-faire – others would say negligent or reckless – when it came to even the most basic standards of disease prevention. In the middle of the Tour, videos surfaced of Djokovic, Thiem, Zverev, and others dancing together shirtless in a busy nightclub, flouting all semblance of COVID restrictions. Critiques were largely dismissed; that is, until players started testing positive for COVID-19. First, Dimitrov tested positive, and then the dominoes began to fall. Eventually, Djokovic and his family tested positive, leading to the cancellation to the final legs of the Tour.

The only unfortunate side of the Djokovic example is that it is a little extreme. That is, the Tour’s organisers were, in hindsight, reckless or negligent in every way possible. Therefore, the main lesson is “do the opposite of what they did; think everything through with the help of experts”. Thankfully, since then, it seems that the world’s sporting bodies are doing just that, especially the NBA.

The NBA’s “Bubble”

Back in March, the NBA suspended the League once players started testing positive for COVID-19. The timing was not great: the March 11th suspension was onlyfive5 weeks before the planned April 18th start date for the NBA Playoffs. Immediately, the question for players, coaches, and management became “how will we save our season?” Over the next couple of months, the NBA went about answering that question in a very deliberate, communicative, and intelligent way.

After getting buy-in from the NBA Players Association, the NBA Board of Governors agreed to an abbreviated season followed by a championship. First, the top 22 teams would be invited to compete at the “NBA Bubble”, an isolated location with strict controls for entry, exit, and testing. The NBA selected Walt Disney World as the location of the Bubble – within Disney World exists the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, which is a massive compound that is exceptionally capable of hosting so many elite athletes and teams. Furthermore, the location within Disney World meant that there was enough hotel capacity.

The key to getting all the players at the same place and ready to compete was establishing a safe, isolated zone. To enact this, the NBA created a six-phase plan that was strict and effective. The details of the six-phase plan are fascinating, but due to their complexity, they will be oversimplified here. The Bubble required a period of isolation, PCR testing every other day of everybody in the Bubble, mandatory individual workouts, no group workouts at first, teams placed strategically in different hotels , restriction of contact with other hotels, scrimmages with teams that shared hotels, and eventually, real games. Leading up to the resumption of play on July 30, there were two consecutive weeks of zero players testing positive for COVID-19.

Could Icarus Fly to Tokyo?

The Bubble, of course, was not without its share of criticisms. Some complained of disheartening lack of fans; others disliked the “snitch hotline” which the NBA established to allow players to report people who broke the rules of the Bubble. Nobody was allowed to have guests, and all food was prepared within the Bubble. Only a handful of players were cited for violating the rules, such as Lou Williams, who went to a strip club, but he insisted he only went to pick up chicken wings. For some players, it was a chance to get back to a semblance of normalcy; other players referred to it as a “prison sentence”. Overall, the Bubble was a runaway success. It was planned and executed almost perfectly from a logistics perspective, but it still nearly popped!

How the Bubble Almost Burst

Some things that were entirely out of the control of event organisers almost caused the Bubble to pop. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, a man named Jacob Blake was shot in the back by the police in front of his three children. Though he did not die – he was “merely” paralysed – his shooting set off a political firestorm.

Seventy-five per cent of the NBA players are Black. A few years back, Lebron James shared his opinions about police brutality against Black men, and a conservative pundit famously said that James and other athletes “shut up and dribble”. Since then, they have done the opposite. Now, almost every player shares their opinions about racial injustice in the United States, and the Jacob Blake situation lit a powder keg that was just waiting to explode. The Milwaukee Bucks, one of the pre-tournament favourites and the top team in the East, announced that they would not play their match. Then, the Lakers and Clippers – together with the Bucks in the top three teams in the League – said they did not want to play the rest of the tournament. In just about every sport across America, from baseball to tennis to hockey, teams and individual players withdrew from their matches. It became one of the largest sports protests in modern American history.

The League responded intelligently; instead of defaulting the teams that refused to play, it took proactive action and delayed the games. The Players Association held a meeting to decide whether to continue with the tournament, and eventually, they reached a consensus to keep playing. The Bubble came so close to bursting based on events that took place almost two thousand kilometres away. The Bubble’s organisers did the only thing they knew how to do: they acted proactively, engaged in constructive discourse with players, and listened.

Balancing the Bubbles

Tokyo’s planners have a monumentally difficult task: they are not creating just one bubble, but some expect them to form separate bubbles by sport. Even now, countries are already creating their own bubbles. An athlete’s performance will depend heavily on how their country responded to the COVID crisis at every stage.

In countries with fewer responses, federations have had to take rather extreme measures. Take Brazil, for example. The nation set up its Olympic training camp for 100 athletes in a small town of 21,000 outside of Lisbon, Portugal. As one might imagine, this is not an ideal place to train, and they do not have access to the infrastructure or resources they would have throughout their home country, but COVID has ravaged Brazil and shows few signs of slowing down. In total, the camp will host more than 200 Brazilian athletes across 16 sports.

Final Lessons

The Olympic Committee has not yet released their official plan for the Games. But somehow, they must find a way to consolidate bubbles from across the world. From a logistical perspective, this is the challenge of a lifetime. To meet this challenge, they can derive lessons from failures and successes that have already taken in place in 2020.

Lesson 1: Listen to the experts. I think just about every sporting event has learned from Novak Djokovic’s mistake. In this case, experts are not politicians — after all, the Adria Tour was approved by multiple governments — but professionals and scientists with no ulterior motives. Since then, various sports have been able to hold their biggest tournaments very successfully (football’s Champions League final, tennis’s US Open).

Lesson 2: No matter how perfect your plans may be, politics always remains a risk. This is true for any international event, especially for the Olympic Games, but the tension has never seemed so high. Therefore, the Olympic Committee must listen to what the NBA did during their political crisis: listen, engage, and take proactive measures. Bubbles require a deep commitment from so many parties, so they must do everything they can to make sure these commitments remain intact.

Lesson 3: No Complacency!


¹ Notably, hotels were allocated by a team’s performance during the regular, pre-COVID season. Higher-ranking teams received better hotel accommodations to account for the home court advantage they would have received in a typical playoff scenario. There were quite a few interesting details like this one, but far too many to list without distracting from the essence of this article.